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The Purple Cloud (1901, revised 1921)
by M.P. Shiel
311 pages
Bison Books/University of Nebraska Press

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Adam Jeffson is living his life in the later years of Victorian London when his fiance schemes to give him an opportunity to be part of a voyage attempting to reach the pole for the first time.  She is more concerned about the immense reward money, but the series of misfortunes that follows Jeffson to the pole is only the beginning as, after he is the only surviving member of the party to reach the pole, once he starts venturing southward again he finds the world immeasurably changed. He pieces together that a poisonous purple cloud swept across all populated areas, killing off all the large animals on the land, to the point that he finds himself the last living man on earth, and spends twenty years wandering about and going mad.

The style this novel is written in was probably already dated during its original publication; ornate and somewhat obtuse, with the narrator often becoming hysterical in an attempt to heighten the drama. There is certainly a decadent and gothic feel to the book, especially after the disaster as the author seems to revel in the dead bodies of all kinds scattered everywhere.

The book is known as a sort of minor classic of science fiction, but mostly it left me disappointed. The large middle portion where the narrator is by himself is probably the low point, where he indulges in all sorts of pointless activity without much of the inner reflection you might expect when you are given so much time alone. I found myself glazing over pages at a time without really picking up on anything that might have happened, and ended up finishing the book just to say that I did.

There are a few versions of this novel, the longest original serialized version, the shorter version afterward published in novel form, then a revised version from 1929 which is in between the previous two in terms of length. This is the final, 1929 version.

Header for the serialized version

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The Doors of Perception (1954) / Heaven and Hell (1956)
by Aldous Huxley
144 pages
Penguin

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Two collected essays by Aldous Huxley, the product of his experiences with mescaline and LSD.

The first essay, The Doors of Perception, deals with the experience of taking mescaline and what Huxley sees as similarity to the mystical experience of the religious (or sometimes the illness of schizophrenics). In many ways this piece is very much rooted in its era; Huxley spends a lot of time talking about his positive experiences, but the essay was written, and his life ended, before psychedelic substance use became more widespread among the population.  Thus, Huxley was able to experience the love-filled visions of his own disciplined experimenting, but didn’t live to see the days of people taking these sorts of drugs day after day just to stay high, or the permanent mental damage they initiated in some users, or even the use of these drugs by cults like the Manson family where they were used to break people down and turn them into mindless killers.  In the light of what we’ve now seen, Huxley’s appeal from the mid-50’s that drugs like these are harmless, and would ideally replace alcohol and even religious discipline, seems dangerous and mostly irrelevant.

The second essay, Heaven and Hell, is less notable, and mostly deals with various forms of art and the way Huxley believes that various aspects, such as landscapes or jewels, relate to the visionary experience, and the ‘other world’ all people have some kind of  (greater or lesser) contact with.  It’s a bit wordy and begins to grate when Huxley over-uses his metaphorical terms like Old World, New World, and Antipodes when referring to consciousness. It can also be very irritating to read what is supposed to be a fact-based essay when you catch inaccurate information, such as when early on Huxley states unquestionably that the vast majority of people dream in black-and-white.  This sounded odd to me, as I certainly don’t, and I did a bit of reading on it, and it seems that most people do actually dream in colour, though for a period in the 1950’s there was a theory floating around that most people dreamed in black-and-white.

That sort of inaccuracy is emblematic of this book, that is too concerned with unexamined spur-of-the-moment ideas, and swept up in Huxley’s enthusiasm for his newly discovered psychedelic substances. It can still be an interesting read in parts, but its relevancy has declined in the light of vaster knowledge, and it does something of a disservice to Huxley’s much-finer work elsewhere.

For relief I turned back to the folds in my trousers. ‘This is how one ought to see,’ I repeated yet again. And I might have added, ‘These are the sorts of things one ought to look at.’ Things without pretensions, satisfied to be merely themselves, sufficient in their suchness, not acting a part, not trying, insanely, to go it alone, in isolation from the Dharma-Body, in Luciferian defiance of the grace of God. (pg.33)

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The Ball and the Cross

The Ball and the Cross (1906)
by G.K. Chesterton
192 pages
Dover Publications

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This allegorical screwball comedy kicks off as a naive Catholic and a naive atheist encounter each other in London, and both are so enraged and delighted to find someone with earnest belief that they almost immediately challenge each other to a duel to the death.  However, most of society cannot even believe that they would take life as seriously as that, and the two heroes need to constantly dodge officers of the law and other members of society who are mostly uninterested in the duel except that they wish that it would not take place and disturb their apathy.

The inspiration for the novel  was a debate that Chesterton had with an atheist in the press.  As the two fictional combatants, MacIan and Turnbull, fight their constantly-interrupted duel across land and sea, they develop a friendship based on mutual respect for each other’s honesty and integrity of character, and find more in common with each other than with many others they encounter who are wishy-washy about their beliefs, or whose words and actions go in entirely opposite directions.  In the latter stages of the novel both MacIan and Turnbull are locked up in an asylum run by a figure that symbolizes both Satan and the rising tide of communism, wishing to erase both God and the integrity of the individual from society.

The dome of St. Paul's Cathedral, around which much of the early action takes place, and whose crowning ball and cross form a key symbol of the novel.

I thought the novel bogged down a bit in the second half, and even Chesterton, reflecting on it later in life, thought it didn’t fully deliver on the potential of its plot.  This edition features a foreword by mathematician and philosopher Martin Gardner, who makes the interesting point that, in the modern world, even when public figures state their religion, we do not expect them to actually believe in what they say, and though they may be asked about things like their sexual relations, what they believe to be the purpose and ultimate end of human life is considered off-limits.

Among the fun and games and flights of word-craft, Chesterton warns us about a world where the noble aim of tolerance somehow slides into a lukewarm miasma where the idea that someone would actually die or kill for what they believe to be true becomes ridiculous not because what that person believes is false, but because we do not want to be so risky or unfashionable as to take the chance to believe in anything.

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The End of the Affair (1951)
by Graham Greene
Penguin Books
187 pages

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The world of Graham Greene, to me, is one where everything is bathed in a slightly sickly green shade of light. A piece of your clothing has had a bit of vomit merely brushed off with a few sweeps of the hand, and wherever you step your shoes sink into the mud until the cold water seeps in and starts to wet the bottoms of your socks.

In this, one his most famous novels, Greene used one of his own affairs as the raw material to write a novel that probes love, hate, and the presence (or lack thereof) of God in each of our lives.

(more…)

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